Dear Readers, winter might be drawing in apace (at least in the UK), but one great pleasure of the darker months is the arrival of winter visitors. How many can you identify? There are so many beautiful birds that I’ve included 16 photos this week.
I have only included species that, according to my Crossley ID guide, are winter migrants only, with no resident or breeding populations (at least at the moment). So catch them while you can! A visit to your local wetlands centre or marsh certainly seems in order.
If you want to be ‘marked’, answers need to be in the comments by 5 p.m.(UK time) on Thursday 29th October. If you don’t want to be influenced by those who have gone before, write your answers down on a scrap of paper first.
Choose your answer from the list below. So, if you think the bird in Photo One is a ruddy turnstone, your answer is 1) a)
Well Readers, I thought this was a well-tricky quiz but you still did amazingly well – Fran and Bobby Freelove and Christine Burns got a full house with 15/15, and Sylvie got 13/15 so well done to all of you! Tomorrow’s quiz will be a little more ‘user-friendly’ shall we say…..
Dear Readers, as regular followers will know I have a habit of crashing to the ground for no obvious reason, so it was with some interest that I found this article in New Scientist that describes a positive epidemic of trips and tumbles. Between 1990 and 2017, the incidence of deadly falls around the world nearly doubled, and although the majority of these were in older people, there has also been a sharp increase in falls among younger people. What light could the article shed on the possible reasons why?
The first is that bipedalism is far from easy: humans are the only animals that walk in the way that we do, with our torsos balanced precariously over our legs. Other bipedal animals, such as the speedy and impressive ostrich, have their bodies balanced in a much more sensible way, and the structure of their legs is different too. The way that a toddler walks, which is in effect a series of stumbles in a particular direction, is basically the way that an adult walks, with a few refinements.
Furthermore, walking is an extremely complicated process: it involves not just our core and leg muscles, but also our sense of balance, our ability to make sense of what we see around us, and our ability to anticipate what’s coming when our foot next hits the ground. Most of the fine tuning takes place in the cerebellum, which acts as a processing unit for all the input from the outside world and from our muscles.
So far, so good. But wasn’t it ever thus? Why are we suddenly falling over so much? One explanation is linked to mental health, and I can testify to the fact that when I’m anxious or depressed, I’m much more likely to take a tumble. My most spectacular trip was on the day that I found out that my Mother was dying, with my second best occurring on the forecourt of the nursing home on the day after Mum and Dad had become residents (a particularly stressful time for all of us). Mental health problems seem to affect the cerebellum’s processing power, and with it our sense of balance. Plus, though this isn’t mentioned in the article, being preoccupied obviously impacts on your ability to notice the raggedy paving stone or the patch of ice in your path.
A standard test for balance is to ask the participant to stand on one leg for thirty seconds, with or without closing the eyes – if you can’t do this, you should probably be looking at improving your balance. But it’s good to start young. We learn a lot about balance as children, and our young people, in the West at least, have never been more sedentary. One recent study showed that children born in 2014 were 20% weaker than their counterparts in 1998. The lack of places for children to play outside, the diminishment of exercise in schools, the way that the outside world is perceived as a dangerous place, all add up to children who are increasingly unfit.
And, as we get older, all that sitting around on our computers (I speak as one who does a lot of this these days) also makes us less fit, less able to balance, and weaker. Dawn Skelton, researcher at Glasgow Caledonian University, UK, describes how things have changed:
“I commonly see people in their mid-40s that have worse balance than 70 or 80-year-olds,”
Fortunately, there are things that you can do to improve your balance at any age.
First of all, do the standing on one leg test, with or without your eyes closed. Make sure you have something to hold on to in case of disaster. Measure how long it takes you to start wobbling – Skelton says that you’ll notice it starting in your feet and ankles, and this is a very interesting point.
One way of improving your balance is from the bottom up – if your feet are stiff and numb, you have less chance of using them effectively. Skelton mentions rocking forward between heels and toes as a good exercise, and picking up a pen or a marble between your toes as a way to increase flexibility. Wearing minimal shoes in the house and going barefoot as often as possible helps to re-train us in the link between the ground, our feet and the rest of our body.
If you are already a gym bunny, you might want to consider swapping the treadmill for walking or running outside, or the stationery bike for a real one. Going out into the real world is much better exercise for your cerebellum, reminding it how to notice what is going on and adjust accordingly.
Interestingly, Skelton isn’t a big fan of yoga or pilates for improving balance on the move, because the poses held are usually stationery, and we need to learn how to keep upright when we’re on the move. For the same reason swimming, though great exercise, doesn’t help with balance on dry land.
The NHS recommend walking sidewise (with or without crossing your legs), step-ups and the heel-to-toe walk, which is surprisingly difficult. You can see a gentlemen in blue Bermuda shorts attempting these tricky manoeuvres here.
So, having read this article I now realise that walking is an inherently unstable activity, exacerbated by when we’re feeling emotionally wobbly. I see some standing on one leg and sideways walking in my future though, how about you? There are few things more embarrassing and potentially dangerous than falling over in the street, so it’s great to know that, however maladroit we are, there are things that we can do.
Dear Readers, you might have noticed that, since the lockdown, people have been looking at the plants and animals in their neighbourhoods with new eyes. As we patrol our local ‘territories’, many of us are starting to wonder what the plants making their presence felt at the base of walls and amidst the pavement slabs are, and some people, including Sophie Leguil, have been chalking their names next to them, so that we’ll know what we’re looking at.
Well, none of this is any surprise to me: since I started the Wednesday Weed in 2014 I have become great friends with the plants in my neighbourhood, and any walk in Bugwoman’s company is likely to involve a litany of botanical and vernacular names as I pass my pals. So it was with great pleasure that I joined the latest in the London Natural History Society’s online talks, this time about ‘Pavement Plants’. You can watch the talk on Youtube here.
Sophie Leguil is the woman behind ‘More Than Weeds‘, an organisation that aims to help us be more aware of the plants that surround us in the city, and encourages us to record what we find on sites such as the BSBI(Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland)’s website. She is a very engaging and knowledgable speaker, and we covered a lot of territory in our thirty minutes. We started with a history of ‘weeds’, and Sophie showed a picture of Canary Wharf where, apart from a few tightly pruned beech shrubs, there was no life at all – not a hillock of moss, not a scrap of lichen. Historically, weeds became a ‘problem’ when we first domesticated plants, and realised that there would usually be some interlopers in our fields or grain stores. More recently, however, weeds would have grown prolifically in our cities, and some of the street names reflect this: there is a ‘Nettle Street’ in Paris, for example, and this was no doubt a back alley where humans would go to urinate, nettles being very fond of phosphate and nitrogen.
Some people profited from the weeds: Sophie showed an illustration of the ‘Groundsel Man’, who gathered groundsel and chickweed and sold it to wealthy city dwellers for them to use as food for their caged birds. However, by the nineteenth century people were beginning to see weeds as ‘noisome’, and there were various home-grown recipes for weed-killer, some including prodigious quantities of sulphur. By the twentieth century there was ‘Eureka’, a weed-killer containing arsenic. And then, of course, we were into the whole array of chemical herbicides, such as glyphosate.
The great bonus of the lockdown has been that the chap who usually wanders along the street with a tank of weed-killer on his back, spraying everything on the pavement, has not been seen, and so the ‘weeds’ are proliferating. And what a joy they can be!
Incidentally, it is illegal in the UK to use chalk to mark walls or pavements, but more power to the chalkpeople, who are highlighting the wild plants around us and bringing so much happiness to those who had gone ‘plant-blind’.
Some councils are becoming more enlightened on their spraying policy: Hackney is making weeding-free areas, has banned glyphosate and is moving towards more targeted weeding rather than the blanket blitz that most councils go in for. Lambeth plans to phase out glyphosate by 2021. But alas the rest of the councils are still in full-on plant-murder mode, and intend to do what they’ve always done. Fortunately, campaigns such as Sophie’s ‘More Than Weeds‘, and Plantlife’s Road Verges Campaign are at least awakening people to the importance of ‘pavement plants’.
Why are they important, though? Well, for one thing they are an extremely useful resource for our embattled insects. 76% of insect species only feed on one plant family, so they are specialised creatures, threatened when their foodplants disappear. Fortunately, our roadside plants are extremely varied – on one survey, Sophie found 62 species of plants from 26 different families. And with the insects come the birds who feed on them. We might get excited about rewilding when it comes to beavers and white-tailed eagles, but how about the creatures at the bottom of the food chain? As I know from my own garden, it’s surprising what turns up if you have a variety of plants, and aren’t overly tidy.
Sophie also makes the point that many weeds are associated with the amelioration of pollution – ribwort plantain is known to reduce the presence of heavy metals in the soil, while an ivy screen was shown to reduce nitrogen dioxide pollution by 24-36% and particulate pollution by 38-41%. Plus, plants make soil when they die and are broken down, and this helps to absorb run-off and even surface flooding.
I think that if we don’t start seeing ourselves as part of the natural world, rather than separate from it, we really will be in for a shock. Historically we have lived alongside plants and animals because we didn’t have a choice: before mechanical methods for sieving grain, for example, we couldn’t get rid of the corncockles and the cornflowers that hid amongst the seed. How ironic that these days we want nothing more than a wildflower meadow in the back garden! But maybe, just maybe, people are starting to realise how much abundance surrounds us, given half a chance, even in the city.
Dear Readers, many of you were so convinced that it was April 1st when I reported on tardigrades last week that I thought I’d give another unlikely creature its moment in the spotlight today. The African Wading Rat was formerly thought to be just one species (Colomys goslingi), but recent studies have found that there are at least four different species, found from Liberia to Kenya.
However, the interesting thing about the African Wading rat is that it hunts for its food (insects, small fish and the occasional tadpole) in streams and rivers. This is most unusual behaviour for a rodent. Furthermore, it uses its long whiskers to sense the presence of prey by draping them on the surface of the water. And, finally, it apparently strides into the water with its ‘stilt-like feet’. What’s not to love?
Until recently, the main study of these rodents seems to have been in 1907, hence the quality of the photos above. The wading rat was seen using its whiskers to hunt for tadpoles (sorry to any of my frog-loving readers). Unfortunately the rodents were then killed and their stomach contents examined to see that they ate, well, tadpoles. Thank goodness for the more observational approach taken by most scientists today.
We have no idea how many wading rats there are, where they live or what they get up to, but the scientists who discovered how varied they are are obviously concerned about all the usual things – deforestation, political strife and mining. And their closest relative is none other than the Ethiopian amphibious rat (Nilopegamys plumbeus), known to science from a single animal found in the 1920s. The animal lived close to the source of the river Little Abbai in North-Western Ethiopia, but the area has long been degraded by over-grazing, and is now apparently completely destroyed. From the one specimen that we have, it’s clear that the rat was extremely well adapted for the aquatic life, with enlarged back feet to help with swimming and a dense coat to keep it warm in the water.
Furthermore, both the Ethiopian and the African species described above seem to have large brains compared to other rodents of a similar size. In creatures like raccoons, the areas of their brains associated with their sensitive hands are much enlarged, so maybe the ‘whisker area’ of these animals’ brains is particularly well-developed: they have a lot of complex processing to do when they’re trying to find and catch their aquatic prey.
There have been two attempts to find the Ethiopian aquatic rat, but no luck so far. It’s probably worth asking the local people (if that hasn’t happened already) as they are usually the ones who know what animals can be found where. At any rate, let’s hope that the wading rats that are going about their business all over Africa don’t end up disappeared in the same way as their Ethiopian cousin. We need all the biodiversity that we can get.
Dear Readers, I don’t know about you but I get a bit fed up with the way that the term ‘sustainability’ is banded about these days. Everyone from Big Pharma to the manufacturers of concrete talk endlessly about how their products are ‘sustainable’ without seemingly giving any thought to what this actually means. Much as ‘natural’ and ‘green’ are terms totally without any actual legal meaning, so we have a general sense that something that is ‘sustainable’ must be a good thing. No wonder many of us are so tired and cynical about the ‘greenwash’ that is everywhere, and no wonder we are also very confused.
Let’s take a quick whizz back to 1987 and a meeting of the World Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission after the chair, the Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Bruntland. The aim of the Commission was to attempt to define ‘sustainable development’. In the process, they had to try to square the circle between developed countries, who were trying to protect the environment while also protecting their burgeoning economies and the lifestyles of their electorates, with the needs of developing countries who wanted better lives for their people. The formulation arrived at was:
‘Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs‘.
Well, it was nice that everyone could agree with this (very flexible) statement, but in effect it enabled everyone to kick the ball of what it actually meant into the long grass for a generation.
What sustainable development actually means is contained in the Venn diagram at the top of the page. It has to factor in three areas: the economy, the people affected by it, and the environment. You only have to look at the diagram to sense the enormity of the issue. Sustainable development can only happen when the environment is able to bear what is happening (after all, sustainable in effect means that things are in a steady state, not deteriorating). It must be economically viable. And thirdly, it must be equitable.
What a tremendous aspiration this is! And you only have to think about it for five minutes to spot the problems. Who decides what the environment can bear? It’s clear that the planet is currently overwhelmed with a whole range of problems, but for much of the population it’s business as usual. Equity between people is a vanishingly rare phenomenon in human history, even though studies show that the most equitable societies have more happy people (not just the poorest but also the richest). And who decides what is ‘economically viable’?
Well, let’s hope that at some point we’re able to work it out, preferably before the whole place becomes uninhabitable for humans. There are some truly wonderful projects happening out in the world: my text book mentions a non-governmental organisation called Shidhulai that works in Bangladesh. They have boats equipped with solar panels that move about the Sunderbans, where road transport is very difficult, and they supply households with recharging facilities for household electricity needs, as well as a floating school and healthcare facilities. The schools are especially important in raising levels of female literacy. The solar-charged lamps that they provide displace kerosene lamps, improve air quality and health in people’s homes and are used by night-fishermen, allowing them to earn more and work in greater safety. You can read more about this project, and many others, here. And do have a look – it’s so easy to just fall into despair these days, but the ingenuity and determination of human beings to make things better should never be underestimated.
Dear Readers, today’s walk in the cemetery, snatched before the rain started, was a positive feast of fungi. Have a look at these sulphur tufts (Hypholoma fasciculare). I love the way that in one small patch we have fungi that are newly emerged, in their prime, starting to fade and some that are positively melting away.
I suspect that they are growing along the root line of some of the horse-chestnuts and oaks nearby, as they are strongly associated with deciduous woodland. Alas, they are also poisonous, so they will not be accompanying anyone’s cooked breakfast.
Further along I see this large round leathery fungus. It looks puffball-ish but the flesh is orange rather than white. It’s always difficult to identify these organisms, but even more so when one has absolutely no clue.
And then there is this chocolate-brown fungus with its slightly pimply top.
I love the way that the fruiting bodies of fungi just appear as if from nowhere – there’s none of the slow emergence of buds that you get with a plant. I remember when we moved from Stratford in the East End to the leafy streets of Seven Kings in Essex, we had a fairy ring in the lawn that popped up literally overnight. It was almost as exciting as our first hedgehog, or the day the apple tree fell over, but I digress. I found mushrooms magical then, and I still do today. I just wish I knew more about them.
Still, as we’re now in Tier Two lockdown in London I should have plenty of time to learn. This is undoubtedly the strangest year of my life (so far). 2020 saw my 60th birthday, an extraordinary trip to Borneo where we were surfing just ahead of a wave of lockdowns, the death of my Dad, the pandemic, and the start of a whole new challenge with my Open University degree. It has been a time of extraordinary anxiety and grief for me, but also a time for reflection, for considering what really does make a life worth living. More than anything, though, it feels like a hiatus, a liminal time between what was, and what will be. I would love to know how you are all doing in these peculiar, stressful times.
It’s fair to say that the holly and the ivy are both doing very well this year.
The woods are full of jays, and the inevitable squirrels.
And look at these fantastic trees! These are a variety of ash called ‘Raywood’ (Fraxinus angustifolia ssp oxycarpa), introduced from Australia in 1925 and now commonly planted for that stunning autumn colour.
Let’s hope that it has some resistance to the ash dieback disease which is killing native ash trees in the UK. I always have a good look at the ashes in the cemetery to see how they are doing, and to wonder at their strange, scarred trunks.
Further along the path, I hear a distinctive mewing sound – if you ever watch ‘Midsomer Murders’ you’ll hear it whenever there are shady goings-on in the woods, even though the bird that makes it is a buzzard, more a creature of open fields in my experience. I am always surprised that birds as magnificent as this make such a meek little call. And then I realise that there are two buzzards! They seem to be becoming established in these parts, which is very exciting. However, sure enough, within a few minutes a whole platoon of crows is up and in full-on harassment mode. You’d have to feel sorry for the poor old buzzards.
And then we wander uphill to where the Japanese Knotweed forms an impenetrable barrier between the cemetery and Muswill Hill Playing Fields, at least to humans. The little birds seem to love the plant, with dunnocks and robins all popping in and out, and I notice little tunnels at the base where the foxes are weaving through. It clearly isn’t all bad. And there’s a lovely patch of Michaelmas daisies which, even on this cold, grey day, is a buzz with late Common Carder bees and a rather splendid bee-mimic hoverfly.
These bee-mimic hoverflies are extraordinary – they fly like bees, they feed like bees and some even move their abdomen in a particularly bee-like way. Alas, they cannot disguise the fact that they have only two wings when bees have four, and also flies have very short, stubby antennae, while bees have ‘elbowed’ antennae that bend in the middle and are clearly visible. Still, this late in the year I am cheered up by the site of any flying insect, and these Michaelmas daisies are delightful too – I love the way that the centre of the flower changes from yellow to red as it gets older, something I’d never noticed before.
And then, as the sky darkens and we head to the exit, I hear the familiar sound of a parakeet and see this chap perched at the top of a conifer, yelling his head off. Goodness only knows what he wanted, but he wasn’t shy about asking for it. There is still something so strange about seeing a parrot in North London, even though I see them every morning at 8 a.m. sharp as they fly over the rooftops en route to Hampstead Heath. They do cheer me up though, with their vibrant colour and air of always being slightly over-excited. Good luck to them!
Dear Readers, we probably all know that these amazing structures are antennae, but what about if I asked you where you’d find a speculum on a bird? Or what elytra are? Well, as you were all so brilliant last week I am upping the ante this weekend. Match the photos to the terms listed below, and pop your answers into the comments by 5 p.m.(UK time) next Thursday if you want to be marked. As usual, if you don’t want to be influenced by the very speedy people who tackle the quiz, write them down old-school on a piece of paper first.
So, if you think what’s shown in photo 1 are some pedipalps, your answer is 1) a)
Dear Readers, I thought this was a tough quiz but I was obviously wrong because Fran and Bobby Freelove, FEARN, Ringgi, Sarah and Christine all got 15 out of 15 correct! Or more likely you are all just brilliant. I shall have to think up a real stinker for Saturday. Thank you all for having a bash!
Stop the press! I missed seeing Sylvie’s answer in the comments, and she got 15 out of 15 as well, so well done Sylvie!
Dear Readers, I hope you will forgive an extremely speedy blog today – we are in the middle of all kinds of shenanigans at work, with two people including our Finance Director on maternity leave and someone else on holiday, but nonetheless I am taking ten minutes to tell you the latest news on the super-heroes of the microscopic world, the tardigrades, or water-bears. There are about 1300 species of tardigrade (the name actually means ‘slow-stepper’) and they can be found anywhere from the tops of mountains to the super-heated vents of underwater volcanoes, from the Amazon rainforest to the Antarctic.
Individual species have developed a whole range of ‘superpowers’. Some can survive temperatures close to absolute zero (-272 degrees Centigrade): some can live through a few minutes of exposure to temperatures as high as 151 degrees Centigrade (although they are not as immune to being boiled as they are to almost everything else). They can go into a state of suspended animation when they are completely dehydrated, and can survive in this condition for up to 30 years. They can survive levels of radiation 1000 times higher than any other animal (largely because they have a special protein which protects their DNA from damage) and have even survived, unprotected, in the cold vacuum of space.
And this very morning, it turns out that tardigrades can also protect themselves from damaging ultraviolet light by creating a fluorescent shield. While a poor worm died in less than five minutes after exposure to the intense levels of UV light, the tardigrades ( a new species previously unknown to science) survived for over an hour until the experiment ended. Some bright spark (pun intended!) is now hoping that they can somehow use this skill to create a sunshield for humans.
And now that we’ve found all this stuff out, maybe we can stop torturing these poor little critters. I think they’ve done quite enough to earn a quiet life, eh.
And if you’re as enamoured with these micro-beasties as I am, you can even buy a plush version. Who needs a teddy when you’ve got a tardigrade?